Why The Future of Work is Collaborative

future of work

If you look at what’s changing in the organizational landscape, the overarching challenge is agility, the ability to adapt faster. What’s emerging as a consensus for success is that this comes from people working together in particular ways. So it’s worthwhile exploring what those ways are, and what can be done to facilitate these outcomes.

And this is inherently social. There are many contributions that come from working smarter on your own. We can make sure we’re good at researching, evaluating, reflecting, and more. However, then we should also make sure we have optimized the contributions coming from us working together.

The key schema to this is ‘learning’, in a particular way. When we trouble-shoot, problem-solve, design, research, and more, when we innovate, we don’t know the answer when we start. So, in a meaningful way, these too are learning opportunities. However, the difference here is that there isn’t someone with the answer who can coach us, so we need to work in the best ways possible. And lots of information is known about working productively in these instances.

You have to be clear about what good collaboration practices are. How do you ask for help in ways that someone will be willing to assist? How do you offer help in ways that will get someone to listen to you? How do you distribute work, check on progress without seeming like a control freak, and more? You shouldn’t assume that these skills are known.

There are many dimensions of working together. For one, the nature of the contribution is a factor: are you communicating or actually contributing? You can be pointing to useful information triggered by the situation, or actually investing effort in analysis of the problem and brainstorming and evaluating potential solutions. Both can be valuable, but they’re very different ways to be engaged.

A second dimension is the time frame. Are we working to solve a particular problem, brainstorming and then moving on to leave it to someone, or is this a working team that meets regularly to address an ongoing situation? The commitment here is an issue. Are we agreeing to work until we have a solution, or are we willing to drop in for a time and give our thoughts and contributions in a focused and constrained effort. Both are viable and valuable, but require different types of processes and support.

Another dimension is your motivation to contribute. Harold Jarche talks about collaboration versus cooperation, where in the former you’re actively pursuing a goal for some personal or external reason, whereas in the latter you’re contributing because it is in the general interest of a networked era. The latter, of course, is a nice situation, but can be hard to engender in places where the culture isn’t conducive to contribution.

The important thing is to find effective ways to think alone and then together. There’s a saying that “the room is smarter than the smartest person in the room”, but there’s a caveat: if you manage the process right. If we allow one person to speak before others have had their chance to think about the problem, that response will color (and limit) the others. Similarly, we want everyone to have enough time to process the situation. So ensuring that there’s private time for preparation and cogitation before converging together is important. It can be done in the meeting: presenting the problem and then giving quiet time first, or before meeting preparation.

Diversity helps too. It turns out that having diversity of background, culture, and more amongst the team members helps. It can be more challenging to manage, but the outcomes are better. Another element is making sure that everyone gets a chance to contribute. When contribution is equal, the quality of the outcome goes up.

Similarly, having the right number of people helps. There needs to be enough people that you get the required breadth and depth, but too large a group and the management gets unwieldy. Research suggests teams in the range of 5-9 individuals work best, but factors such as representing the necessary skills can influence the optimum total.

Further, you have to actually be willing to consider new ideas. If the response is “that’s not how we do it here”, are folks really willing to listen? There has to be a commitment to solicit and evaluate new ideas with fair consideration.

And, it has to be safe to contribute. If you’re in what I call a Miranda Organization, where anything you say can and will be held against you, you’re not going to get participation. A competitive environment, where you don’t want to give your fellow employees an advantage, isn’t going to be able to tap into this information without external motivators. People will reserve information until it does them a personal good, whereas in another culture the contribution to the general good will be seen as a personal benefit as well.

In short, there has to be a culture for learning together. Attitudes about the benefits of contributing have to be complemented by a desire to improve. The values have to be coupled with specific skills on how to learn together. Importantly, the atmosphere and skills can, and should, be developed.

So how do you shift to an environment where collaboration can flourish, delivering the best outcomes for the organization? There are several paths, each with it’s own contribution. And there’s no reason they can’t be implemented in parallel.

One of the ways is to instill practices about “working and learning out loud”, or as Jane Bozarth terms it in her book of the same name, “show your work”. Here, employees are encouraged to leave evidence of what they’re working on, and the underlying thinking behind it. The benefits to communication, being able to track progress, are clear. There are also benefits to collaboration, if others, visiting, can and do provide feedback.

To get there takes the usual change elements: there has to be a rationale, someone modeling it, evangelism and support, etc. Difficulties should be anticipated, and support for unanticipated outcomes should be available as well. As with any such change, it will take time, but with systematic work it can be accomplished. Arguably, having it instantiated in a small group first, and working, will help spread the idea.

Another approach is to build it into your formal learning. In courses, online and face-to-face, have assignments where workers need to collaborate. Ideally, they’re spread out over time, mimicking the ways in which such assignments will likely happen. Have them practice working together in groups first, and then send them away on the same or other projects to work online.

This latter, in particular, is the way to get them using the tools that you want them to be using. Whether a dedicated tool for work like a wiki, or the collaborative document tools that are increasingly available, have learners use them for tasks as preparation for using them in work. Here you have an opportunity to observe and develop their ability. You can do so in real practice, of course, but this is a time when the task is known, and the expectation of observation and feedback is encouraged.

A number of elements come into play. Your learners will have to develop the ability to comment on the outcome, not the person. They’ll have to learn how to review changes over time, and how to resolve conflicts in vision that can result in bouncing back and forth between two versions. Culturally, you’ll have to make it clear that effective collaboration is not only valued, but expected. Of course, you’ll have to help your L&D team learn about the facilitation of collaboration too, such as when to intervene and when to step back.

It’s clear that the future of business is social, and that tools and skills to facilitate this are part of an organization that can continue to innovate and be adaptive enough to not just survive, but to thrive. The question is whether you’re ready to make the step, and willing to invest the effort to develop the skills and the culture.